»  Taki's Magazine

July 19, 2012

  Things Fall Apart

Or if they don't, we can take them apart.

"We do not want the bolt lock pin to be tight in the bolt. We want it to be tight in the bolt lock, or locking block …"

Damn these pins! Pins are a huge enemy.

Excuse me: I am working my way through a DVD put out by the American Gunsmithing Institute. My instructor here is Robert Dunlap.

If you're not into gunsmithing, the name Robert Dunlap is unknown to you. It was unknown to me until very recently. Then I went skeet shooting with a friend who knows more about guns than I ever shall. I was wielding the Derb family shotgun: a Mossberg 500 pump-action job that I bought second-hand a couple of years ago for $240. The Mossberg 500 is a sort of Model T Ford of pump-action shotguns: the basic item, without frills.

At our next meeting my friend handed me this DVD. On it, Mr Dunlap gives a brief history of the gun, then takes it to pieces, cleans all the pieces, and re-assembles the gun.

(It almost seems disrespectful to say "Mr Dunlap." The level of expertise here is so high, some honorific title is called for. There are, though, apparently no doctorates or professorships in gunsmithing. The English language really needs something like the Chinese 師傅, pronounced shifu. Wang Xiansheng is just Mr Wang, but Wang Shifu is an expert in something or other, most likely something practical. The pity is, we did once have an equivalent: 400 years ago my instructor would have been Master Dunlap. Nowadays, if you didn't spend your twenties in book learning, you're just Mister. Bah!)

So here I am working through that DVD, with the family shotgun currently in pieces — 56 pieces, if you want to know: two wood, 51 metal, 3 other — on my work bench in the basement.

It takes me back. As a kid, I was always taking things apart. It was early training in entropy. In this universe, time's arrow only ever points one way, and taking things apart is much easier than putting them back together.

It was actually with a gun that I learned this to maximum mortification around age six. A loving uncle had come visiting from a distant town, and it was my birthday. As a present, he gave me a handsome toy gun, with a mechanism that fired percussion caps for a satisfying gun sound.

While Uncle Fred socialized with my parents in the living room, I hid out behind the sofa and took that gun to pieces. Having done so, I of course had no idea how to reassemble it. There was an unpleasant fuss. Perhaps it was my childish imagination, but I never afterward felt that Uncle Fred was quite so loving.

Ten years later, as a member of my school army cadet corps, I learned how to strip a bren. The bren gun was the standard light machine gun of the mid-20th-century British army. Stripping it down to its component pieces — it had about eight, as I remember — was a standard exercise in basic training. There were speed competitions — anything under fifteen seconds was a good time. There were aces who could do it blindfolded. There was a whole cult of bren-stripping. Probably, in some corner of what was once the British Empire — upcountry Burma, perhaps, or some Caribbean island off the tourist track — they are still stripping brens for amusement.

By that time I had branched out into disassembly adventures unrelated to guns. Bicycles were a favorite. Who that has ever taken apart a Sturmey-Archer hub gear can forget that fatal moment when, with an insolent PING!, some damn spring is activated, firing tiny ball bearings all over your back yard?

I balked at motorbikes; though a friend who was a serious biker could reduce his BSA to nuts, bolts, pins, and pistons in a single Saturday morning's work. He used to quip that when he'd put it back together, he had enough parts left over to build another bike.

But that's all shove be'ind me — long ago an' fur away … or was, until this week. Now here I am in my basement, trying to ensure that the lock pin is tight in the bolt lock, or locking block. Who knew that there was so much to a shotgun mechanism? Or that there were so many names to memorize? I had never, until two days ago, encountered the noun "sear."

And those damn pins! There was one in the bolt assembly that I just couldn't get out. It was one of those holding in the firing pin. I whacked at it in the approved fashion with a hammer and nail punch. It came out about a sixteenth of an inch, but wouldn't budge further. My punch wouldn't go any deeper into the pin hole, being the wrong type for gunsmithing, and the firing pin wouldn't come out.

I thought hard about the problem until neurons were throwing aside their weapons and running from the field. Then I consulted a neighbor knowledgeable in the ways of tools. He gave me the solution: Find a drill bit of precisely the right caliber and hammer it down into the hole. I sacrificed two drill bits to the enterprise, but eventually got the firing pin free.

Then, with the gun in pieces, the cleaning phase. Master Dunlap stunned me here, spraying his tray of parts with a household cleaner, then dropping them into a tub of warm water. Those parts are made of metal, for crying out loud. The master knows his business, though: Properly rinsed off and dried (he recommends a domestic oven at 200 degrees: I used my paint-stripper heat gun), the parts are going to get oiled anyway.

I now have the cleanest shotgun on the Eastern seaboard … if I can get the darn thing back together again. A different gun-knowledgeable friend, apprised of my adventure, emailed: "Oh yeah. A couple of times I've shown up at my gunsmith with a tray of parts, begging for help." Uh-oh. Let's press on, though.

"This leg gets pushed against the front wall of the trigger housing and this leg will rest against the sear, which is in a fully extended position …"